PHNOM PENH —
When Kanchana* wakes every morning, she says her first interaction is to receive a tirade of harsh words and pressure from her parents, who demand nothing less than the highest academic performance.
With a sorrowful look on her face, Kanchana, 22, the eldest child of four in her family, says the stress placed on her by her parents has led to depression and limited the freedom to make her own choices in life.
“There’s no emotional attachment between me and my parents at all,” said Kanchana, a college senior studying accounting.
But Kanchana’s situation is not unique in Cambodia. The Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) estimates that about 40 percent of Cambodians may suffer mental ill-health, with high rates of youth depression surrounding family life.
Kanchana believes the pressure her parents place on her to succeed has led to anxiety, low self-esteem and insomnia.
Dalika Chheoun, a freshman at the Institute of Foreign Languages, said parental pressure was so intense that it led her to enter a deep depression, which consequently meant she underperformed in her studies, failing the 2015 high school exit exam.
“I still have difficulty chilling out as I have low self-esteem and am judgmental on myself according to the standard that my parents set,” she said. “They compare me with neighbors’ or relatives’ children. Their language is really harmful, but they don’t acknowledge how powerful it can be.”
Youth depression is often caused by youngsters’ home environment and differing expectations placed on them by their immediate family, according to Chhim Sotheara, executive director of the TPO.
“The common problem that I found is from the family environment they grow up in. Those with strict parents and when parenting features threats and violent behavior,” he said.
Such pressures can lead to sleep deprivation, eating disorders, anxiety, low self-esteem and poor academic performance, he added.
“They tend to change their way of thinking. They stop doing anything. They might eat a lot and sleep more and their performance at school drops as well,” he said. “Some kids finally have the courage to talk to their parents, but then the parents mock them by seeing it as a weakness and it worsens the situation.”
Sotheara has observed the growth of a relatively new coping mechanism youngsters are using to deal with trouble at home: increasingly teens are finding support on social media among their peers. “They feel unwanted by their family so they are craving attention from others.”
According to a 2015 study by researchers at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, more than 60 percent of students and faculty members lived with depression or anxiety, with some reporting strict parenting as the cause.
Kao Sovandara, one of the researchers, said in many cases the parents were treating their children badly due to past trauma they themselves had suffered. “Some parents have been through war and they were taught to apply coercive ways to get people under control,” he said.
“Sometimes, parents even transfer their former aspirations onto their children without acknowledging if it was in the kids interest. So some children tend to follow someone else’s dream instead their own dream.”
But he added that parents still played an important role in child development, which could be the most positive influence in a child’s life.
Tang Chhun Bouy, 44, a mother of two, said she uses “sweet language” so that her children would see her as someone they could confide in and trust. “By doing this, when they feel like they need to consult with you about something, it is easier to talk and to understand each other.”
Kanchana hopes her parents will accept who she is and the progress she has made. “I would be delighted,” she says.
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.